Tuesday, July 27, 2010

From Pigeon Shit to Bullshit

Pity the poor Kings of Leon. One minute you're riding high with a multi-platinum selling album and a Grammy for Record of the Year, the next you're being shat upon by pigeons. The band opted to cancel a concert in St. Louis after being showered with bird poop during a set at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

I read this item with keen interest, partly because I'm a fan of KoL, but mostly because I despise pigeons and am intent on collecting evidence of their nefarious ways. I don't know what I plan on doing with said information, other than wave it in the face of people who persist in feeding these disgusting birds.

Anway, that was the extent of the story. Concert venue infested with pigeons, bass player hit with poop near the mouth, concert off. The end.

Except, today, a story on the Web never really ends. There's always the comments section. Depending on the topic, these can run into the hundreds, even thousands. Because everyone has an opinion and it must be heard.

In the event of the pigeon poop, a number of commenters made it clear they don't much care for KoL or their music. So, hurray for the pigeons! (In a comments section, you will always find at least one poster wondering why haters bother to read articles about people/things they claim to despise.) Others deemed the band members a bunch of spoiled sissies for bailing under the circumstances. These postings ran along the lines of, "If I were getting paid a million dollars, I'd open my mouth and let the pigeon squirt right in!" Oh, really? I suppose we can thank reality TV for that sort of mentality. We're so accustomed to seeing desperate, attention-seeking people perform all sorts of demeaning acts, including eating bugs, for their 10 seconds of notoriety that we imagine that individuals who've earned their fame due to actual talent would be equally willing to debase themselves. (If your job entailed being bombarded by bird guano, and you weren't, say, an ornithologist assigned to the Galapagos, I suspect you'd have OSHA on the phone in a nanosecond.)

And then, predictably, came the politicizing of a decidedly non-political event. These "liberal" rock stars apparently got what was coming to them. Never mind that KoL hail from Tennessee (hardly a hotbed of progressive thought) and traveled throughout the U.S. as children, following the wanderings of their father, a Pentecostal preacher. But they're entertainers, which I guess equals "Hollywood," which I guess equals Obama.

I don't know why I bother with comments sections. I only started reading the ones related to recaps of "Lost," looking for, and occasionally obtaining, additional glimmers of insight. With regard to KoL, I was hoping people who had attended the concert might provide further first-person accounts. What I got was the usual--a whole lot of anger.

Much blame for the current mean-spirited tone of our public discourse has been laid at the altar of cable news. To that let me add the comments section.

My husband, Dave, does not spend much time on the computer unless he's managing his fantasy baseball team. So when he commented on an article about the Supreme Court ruling against Chicago's handgun ban--noting that as an actual resident of the city, this didn't make him feel a whole lot safer--he was unprepared for the wrath to come. Foolishly, he had failed to disguise his identity as either "anonymous" or something more clever, like "chitownwussy." So just moments after he clicked "publish," he found people he'd never met or would never want to meet, calling him out by name and responding to his comment with a level of hatred typically reserved for serial killers. Many of them hoped he'd find himself in a home-invasion type situation, staring down the barrel of gun, utterly defenseless. So, to sum up, complete strangers, in a public forum, wished my husband bodily harm, possibly even death. Why? Because they hold a different point of view.

Dave was visibly shaken; to have that sort of personal attack waged so impersonally mystified and troubled him. He vowed to never wade into the mire of comments sections again. Oh, if only everyone would take such an oath.

Used to be, in the olden days of the early 1990s, the news was reported with objectivity by trained journalists. They gave us the facts and that was that. Now, objectivity is this quaint little concept, as outmoded as mainframe computers. Facts are for ninnies, opinion is king. And derogatory opinion trumps all.

I appreciate that freedom of speech is one of the founding tenets of our nation. It's just that unfortunately, a lot of free speech these days is less akin to Martin Luther King's powerful and soaring "I have a dream" and more like "You suck, you idiot."

Hate begets hate. One spiteful comment leads to another--either in agreement with the original or in opposition. And before you know it, the "conversation" has degenerated into name calling and expletives so far removed from the original topic that it's nearly impossible to follow the thought process that leads from pigeon poop to "die, commie bastards." You never know what's going to set off the firestorm. Commenters seem to have an uncanny ability to twist the most innocuous subject--the Jonas Brothers, let's say--into fodder for their vitriol.

It's too late to put Pandora back into the box. But I can't help wondering what would happen if the comments section suddenly disappeared. If people were forced to share their opinions, old-style. Face to face. Only with people they know. I suspect a number of individuals would be far too mortified to own up to their thoughts when they can't hide behind "anon." Others might be forced to think twice before spewing their diatribes and discover that, on second thought, some opinions are better kept to oneself.

Barring an outright elimination, what if we insisted that commenters adhere to the old cliche "if you can't say something nice, don't say it." That sound you'd hear? A whole lot of silence.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Reality Hunger Gives Me Heartburn

Bravo to you if you're reading this blog. Clearly you understand that personal opinion is the only true form of literary expression worth reading today.

I jest, but David Shields does not. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, released earlier this year, Shields touched off a firestorm of commentary with his assertion that the novel is dead, long live the essay/memoir. Of course, that's just his personal opinion.

It took me awhile to get around to reading the manifesto, partly because there was a bit of a wait to obtain what seems to be the Chicago Public Library's only copy. Apparently a number of us want to read Shields, we just don't want to buy him.

Reality Hunger is a collage of quotes and epiphanies--many of them not by Shields--in support of his general thesis that the lines between fiction and non-fiction are blurring, with non-fiction gaining the upper hand due to its general "truthiness." He spends 205 pages arguing this same point 618 times (the quotes and epiphanies are numbered), which is ironic, given that Shields devotes an entire four-page chapter to the art of brevity.

As someone who writes non-fiction, I was bolstered by his assertion that the form be allowed room to breathe. That when it comes to creative non-fiction, the creative part be given as much sway as the non-fiction. This is not journalism, people, he says. Memory is by its nature unreliable and the mere ordering of a life's event into a narrative suggests creative license has been taken. To which I say, hear, hear. Let the redemption of James Frey commence.

What I can't abide, however, is his insistence that the novel is no longer worth reading or writing. Simply because Shields himself prefers to read and write non-fiction. OK. That's his choice. I'm just wondering why this personal preference bubbled up to the level of national (possibly international) debate. I don't like goat cheese, but I don't see a publisher offering me a contract for a book that declares the superiority of cheddar.

Shields' primary argument against fiction is that it doesn't feel authentic--that readers can (or should) see the wheels of the plot turning. That novelists are working to invent what for essayists already exists--true experience. That knowing that a story is true makes it infinitely more powerful than knowing that a story is a figment of someone else's imagination. I couldn't disagree more.

Before I cracked open Reality Hunger, I finished reading Roddy Doyle's Paula Spencer, the sequel to his earlier novel,
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. Both center on the character of Paula Spencer--Irish, alcoholic, battered wife. There are scenes in the first book of such utter devastation and brutality, as Paula describes beating after beating, that I found myself wincing in pain. In those moments, I knew what it felt like to be dragged around by your hair, to be kicked and hit and smashed until you're curled up like an animal, covered in your own blood. I read the second book because, as I told my husband, "I have to know that Paula is OK." "You know she's not a real person," he said. Oh, but you see, thanks to Doyle's astounding powers, she absolutely is. Perhaps not to Shields, but most definitely to me.

My question to Shields would be, why must it be either/or? Non-fiction but not fiction? I know the answer. It's that polarization sells. It's not enough to argue that non-fiction deserves greater respect and creative leeway (which is likely what he's really after), you also have to state that the rising popularity of one form completely negates the validity of the other.

That's the reality of the culture we live in. Pardon me for wanting to escape it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Playing Tourist in the Parent 'Hood

My nephews, ages 2 and 4/almost 5, were in town over the weekend (along with my brother and sister-in-law). Their visit proved an eye-opener in more ways than one.

For starters, my husband and I got to play tourist too, and in Chicago, that means one thing--Navy friggin' Pier. Oh, how we natives love to deride the Pier as the eighth circle of hell where all things hip and trendy go to die. I mean, it has a food court, for god's sake. But you know, if your goal isn't so much to be cool and pretentious as it is to have fun, the Pier totally delivers.

We rented one of those quadcycles, which looks like a cross between a bicycle and the Flinstones' car. Or an un-motorized golf cart with pedals. Pick your analogy. With the four of us adults pedaling our thighs off and the kids in front just soaking up the view, we struck out on the lakefront bike path, heading past North Avenue Beach, up to Fullerton. This is like taking a Big Wheel onto the expressway. In rush hour. Normally, when Dave and I are out for a ride, we hate the quadcycles. They're lumbering, people don't know how to steer them, and basically they get in our way. The dorks pedaling them are also always having too much fun, and cycling isn't supposed to be fun. Just ask the dudes dressed like Lance Armstrong, constantly shouting "on your left" as they attempt to turn a recreational path into the Tour de France.

But the quadcycle is so goofy in its construction and operation, you can't help but laugh at your own absurdity. The fact that it moves at a much slower pace all but forces you to stop and take notice of the beauty of the lakefront on a perfect summer day. The people-watching was particularly grand. Zipping along at our regular clip, we might have missed the old man in the Speedo performing a bizarre stretching routine along the side of the path for the benefit of the multitudes. With God as my witness, I will never mock the quadcycle again.

The other thing about hanging with the boys was that not only were given the chance to look at our city in a different light, we saw everything from a new perspective. Routine objects and activities became cause for excitment. Do you know how awesome elevators are to a 2-year-old? And not just riding them, but pushing the "up" and "down" buttons. How about a revolving door? Magic. The CTA, bane of my existence, became a veritable Disneyland. "I've never ridden a train that went anywhere before," exclaimed Connor (the 4/almost 5-year-old). We actually skipped our stop--which typically only happens to drunk, passed-out Cubs fans--just to make the trip longer for the boys.

I had been worried that our condo would prove a total bust, being completely devoid of toys. That's because I was viewing it with jaded, adult eyes. Little did I know that our accordian-style doors would be a total revelation to Logan. Look, they fold when they open! Our living room lamp, which you turn on by tapping its base, provided non-stop entertainment. Just letting Connor turn the key to our front door, well, you'd think we'd told him we'd won the lottery and made him our sole heir. We also had popsicles and Cheerios, which pretty much qualified as a four-star feast and cemented our status as best aunt and uncle ever.

But perhaps most illuminating was not the kids' reaction to their surroundings, but their surroundings' reaction to them. And by that I mean that people are so much nicer to children--especially little boys in "my name is Trouble" t-shirts--than adults. I'm guilty of this behavior myself. Where grown-ups get the stone-faced stare, I smile at babies, make funny faces for kids on the train, hold doors open for people with strollers. The thing is, I'd never been on the receiving end of this warmth and kindness before.

People chatted me up in elevators, often mistaking me for a mother instead of an aunt. "How old is he?" one woman asked, pointing to Logan. "My grandson will be 2 in a couple of months." The owner of Scooter's Frozen Custard, which we go to probably once a week, has never made eye contact with us before. But with Connor and Logan in tow, she came out from behind the counter and talked our ear off. It was like having an audience with the Pope. At a restaurant, we commiserated with another parent whose child, likewise, would not stay in her seat. She worried that kids on the loose--it was an outdoor patio--would bother the other diners. Not us, mind you, who she considered comrades and co-conspirators, but the "singletons," aka, people without kids. In other words, on any other night under more typical circumstances, me and Dave.

I saw some statistic a couple of weeks ago that said 18% of women my age don't have kids. That seems like a large number, but flip the statistic around: 82% do. I suspect if you further parsed the results and included only married women in my bracket, the percentage of mothers would top 90%. Either way, I represent such a tiny fraction of the female population as to nearly qualify as an endangered species. I'll admit, it can feel mighty lonely at times out here in non-mom-land. I lack the tie that binds, not just to other women but to other adults. The shared experience that gives complete strangers common ground. Once, I was at a birthday party for a friend's husband. We didn't know many of the other guests, so it was a relief when someone turned to me for conversation. "How do you know K?," he asked. "Do your kids go to school together?" "No, we don't have kids," I replied. He turned away.

For the few brief days that the boys were in town, I felt like someone finally taught me the secret handshake, finally gave me the access code to their exclusive club. Instead of standing there, nose pressed up against the glass, I was on the other side, mixing and mingling with the "in" crowd. All those moms and dads who otherwise consider me some sort of enemy, the person to be feared at restaurants and concerts and shopping malls and anywhere else they think a screaming child is likely to draw my ire rather than my sympathy.

I gotta say, even though I was just visiting parenthood, it felt nice. To be included. As much as Americans celebrate our freedom and individuality and our "don't tread on me" spirit, we're also very much a nation of joiners. We like to identify ourselves with groups. How else to explain Lady Gaga's 10 million Facebook fans, or better yet, the gazillions of people who tune into the Super Bowl when they don't even like football. It's only human to not want to feel left out or left behind. To be marginalized.

I've never been the sort of person who does something simply because everyone else is doing it. In fact, often quite the opposite. I guess I just never fully appreciated what it would mean to swim against the tide when it comes to having kids.

I'm the quadcycle. To know me is to love me, but most people won't bother to take me out for a spin.

Monday, July 05, 2010

From Bust to Boom

When Mayor Daley announced that the city's annual downtown 4th of July fireworks display would be canceled in lieu of three smaller events spread along the lakefront, much grumbling ensued. Nobody likes change, especially not to beloved holiday traditions.

But I gotta say, in practice, this seeming bust of an idea turned out to be pretty damned spectacular.

We've headed to the Grant Park fireworks maybe once every three years. It's a lot of schlepping on the train for a North Sider. To claim a tiny patch of grass from a semi-decent vantage point, we'd have to leave our place about 3 hours in advance of the fireworks. The display would last all of 15 minutes, and then another 2 hours to get home. Not that I'm complaining. We were always glad we made the effort--there's something about seeing the entire city of Chicago, all colors and economic levels, come together that's electrifying. Not to mention the opportunity, after the display ended, to walk up Lakeshore Drive, closed to auto traffic. That was probably the best part--gazing at the lake and city skyline on a warm summer night and falling in love with Chicago all over again.

Here's how last night played out in comparison: At 8 p.m., an hour before the fireworks were set to shoot off, we hopped on our bikes and rode down a nearly deserted Wilson Ave. to the lakefront. Where cars were stymied by police barricades, we sailed on through. (I have to say, traffic cop is an awesome job. You get paid to be rude.) By 8:30, we were plopped on the grass, just feet from the beach. We watched as the fireworks' barge maneuvered to a spot on Lake Michigan literally right in front of where we were sitting. We had lucked into a front-row seat.

As I surveyed the crowd, which stretched from Montrose to Lawrence and beyond, I couldn't help but wonder what the Tea Partiers would make of such an assemblage. As a rough estimate, I'd say white folks like my husband and me made up about 5 percent of the gathering. The rest were a mix of Latinos (the vast majority), African-Americans and assorted other ethnic groups. They might not have looked like the Founding Fathers, but they celebrated with as much gusto and joy. Little kids ran around with glow sticks and the smell of barbecue mingled with the stench of sulphur. Fireworks are illegal to shoot off in Illinois, but you'd never know it from where we sat. The amateur bangs and crackles were applauded by the crowd, while we waited for the real show to start.

This was something new, something you didn't get in Grant Park. The spirit of independence--it was like the city had come to our party instead of the other way around. We weren't sitting under the shadow of august institutions like the Field Museum. This was our neighborhood so we were free to loosen up a bit. The year before, we had watched security personnel shoo people off the lawn of the Shedd Aquarium, which had been reserved for a private party. In contrast, here it felt like being at the kids' table on Thanksgiving instead of with the grown-ups in the dining room.

According to my watch, the city's display kicked off a minute late, but once the first rocket launched, I knew I was among my own people. People who love fireworks. People who aren't too cool to admit thier childish delight in watching sparkly things go boom. We whooped and cheered every burst--which included smiley faces and heart shapes and these gorgeous cascading fountains that drew a collective gasp. No one had thought to bring a radio to listen to the musical simulcast; instead, a guy next to us, part of large extended familial group, kept up a running play-by-play. His schtick needed a little work--he called the grand finale approximately halfway into the 15-minute show. All the while, people continued to shoot off their own fireworks, because what is the 4th but a pyromaniac's dream come true.

As the last burst faded to black, we got back on our bikes, weaved through the crowd, and were shortly in the clear. We zoomed passed buses, parked, waiting for the oncoming hordes. I'd never ridden in the dark before and had been a little apprehensive of making the attempt. But much like that walk up Lakeshore, it was the best part of the night. It felt free--free to be in the open air, to be part of this tiny band of cyclists, to have the road nearly to ourselves. As we made our way home, fireworks shot off all around us, and we were in the center of the celebration, enveloped by the magic.

By 9:45, we'd pulled up to our building, ready for Round 2. For the past couple of years, a group of teens has held their own fireworks display in the park behind our condo. For amateurs, it's pretty impressive (we wonder how much it costs and how the heck these kids get the money to pay for it, but that's a minor quibble). We settled onto our back deck--again, a front row seat--and a few of our neighbors came out to enjoy the show as well. When the cops arrived to shut the kids down, we nearly staged a protest but thought better of it--Chicago cops have a reputation, after all. (Where were they on the lakefront, where the crowds were much thicker and the danger much greater?) Not willing to call it a night, we chatted up our neighbor and her guests, one of them in town from Ohio, our home state. This might not sound like a remarkable occurrence, but it was, because in a huge city like Chicago, you don't necessarily even know the people who live five feet across the hall from you, much less talk to them.

On this night, the fireworks had brought us together. And wasn't that the point, after all.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Princesses Lose Their Crown

While real-life princesses--see previous post--are staging a comeback (I picked up a copy of Majesty magazine in Borders and I swear there was an article titled "Know Your Princesses"), apparently fictional ones are lagging in popularity.

According to an item in Entertainment Weekly, Disney was none too pleased with the relatively paltry box office for "The Princess and the Frog." So to promote its forthcoming fall animated feature, "Rapunzel," it's dialing down the estrogen and ramping up the stud quotient. All in a bid to attract more boys to the movie. Check out the trailer and you'll see what I mean.

I'm torn. On the one hand, I realize it's healthy for girls to grow up knowing they can be doctors or lawyers or sales clerks at Walgreens. Or a Crown Princess who will get to rule her country some day, not Cinderella who just looks pretty in a big poofy ballgown. It doesn't need to be all pink, all princess, all unicorns and rainbows all the time.

On the other hand, must we always pander to the guys? Something like 99.99999 percent of movies are aimed at men or boys. Women are aware of this, which is why a lot of us went to see "Sex and the City 2" even though we knew it sucked. If we don't turn out for "female" fare, no matter how bad it is, we'll never see it again. Take away a little girl's princess movie, or de-emphasize the female role in it, and you're just affirming at a young age that girls are secondary to boys. That it's a man's world and we're just along for the added date-night revenue.

The same studios that worry that boys didn't like "The Princess and the Frog" are the same ones that cast 22-year-old starlets as the love interests of 60-year-old coots. The princess phase, when girls are the center of the story, is so fleeting and now the powers that be aren't even willing to concede that modest territory to members of the fairer sex, who clearly are considered a less desirable audience.

Save the princess.